Fun night at a leaving do last night, which included some earnest discussion of the work of Sean Connery. In 2003, I wrote a feature for Film Review Special #47 - devoted to Sir Sean - on his non-James Bond film roles in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It used to be up on the now-departed Film Review website, so here's the article in full.
Part One - The 1950s and 60s
Knowing Sir Sean Connery’s talents as we do, it’s not just funny to watch his faltering early work, it can be downright disturbing. In Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), not only does he smile prettily throughout, he sings:
‘Pretty Irish Girl’, his mawkish, Oirish ballad, was even released as a single. Connery plays the love-interest of an Irish girl whose hilariously mischievous dad has meanwhile kidnapped the king of the leprechauns. Clean-living, well-meaning and thoroughly decent in a way your granny would approve of, it’s not the Sean Connery we expect. He’s nice!
The film effectively made Connery a star. Disney spent so much on the full colour special effects they needed a low-cost but value-for-money lead. The then-unknown Connery was suitably able, available and cheap. Which was lucky, because future Bond producer Albert R Broccoli took his wife to see the film – and she let on that Connery had a certain appeal.
He had already earned a reputation as a fiercely-driven actor whose conscientious intensity impressed those working with him. That keenness and motivation may in part derive from his unglamorous background. In 1997, at a star-studded Hollywood tribute, he explained ‘If I do my job right, you won't ask for your money back. If you do, I'll just have to go back and sell the milk.’ He had spent three years in the Navy, then been a milkman, a bricklayer and even worked as a coffin-polisher before taking third-place in the Mr Universe body-building contest. This subsequently got him a job in the chorus of a touring production of South Pacific and he decided to stick at the acting.
As well as small roles on the stage, he got odd bits of television. In 1955, he had a part in an episode of Dixon of Dock Green. A year later he appeared alongside Robert Shaw in The Escaper’s Club, which led to several BBC dramas. During the filming of Anna Christie he met his first wife, Diane Cilento. He started to appear in movies, too - apparently appearing (uncredited) in the 1955 Errol Flynn vehicle, Lilacs in the Spring, though I looked hard and couldn’t spot him!
Despite Darby O’Gill, it was quickly clear that Connery best-suited rogueish characters. Also in 1957, he appeared as a criminal in No Road Back, beating up Alfie Bass. In the gritty Hell Drivers the same year, he was one of the surly truckers. He was a drunken first mate at the beginning of Action of the Tiger (directed by Terence Young, who would later support Connery’s casting and direct three of his outings as Bond). He also played ‘Welder number 2’ in Time Lock, and though it’s not a huge role in the film, it’s Connery’s character who ultimately saves the small boy locked in a vault. It wasn’t that Connery made a convincing ‘rogue’ that matters so much as his ability to make the ne’er-do-wells so charismatic. Even in these early roles, he is positively scene-stealing.
His continuing work with for the BBC gave him a bit more variety, ‘proper’ acting with which to develop his talents. He was getting better parts, too. In An Age of Kings (an amalgamation of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays) Connery was the blood-and-thunder Henry Hotspur. He had the major role of Wronksi in Rudolph Cartier’s Anna Karenina and took the lead in Requiem for a Heavyweight [I've since learnt that Connery got this first starring role on the advice of his co-star, Jacqueline Hill].
After Darby O’Gill, his next film leading role came in 1958 with Another Time, Another Place. Connery plays a BBC reporter having an affair with the married Lana Turner. It’s fairly predictable stuff, until Connery’s character dies in a plane crash. In mourning, Turner decides to seek out the Cornish village he comes from, and - to our surprise as much as hers - finds he has left behind a wife and child. It’s the first real sighting of the Connery we recognise today – a confident, able rascal, getting away with it.
What’s more, legend has it that during production Connery was threatened at gunpoint by Turner’s boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato. Connery dealt with the gangster just as we’d expect one of his characters to – punching him. Whatever the truth of the matter, it didn’t do any harm to Connery’s fast-growing reputation as a movie hardman.
Leading roles continued to come his way. In 1961 he co-starred in On The Fiddle. Wily Alfred Lynch leads Connery’s none-too-bright Pedlar Pascoe into all kinds of antics to avoid the frontlines, though they ultimately prove to be heroes. It shows Connery’s rarely used gift for comedy (sly wise-cracking aside). Around this time he also appeared as one of Herbert Lom’s mob in The Frightened City, and briefly as Private Flanagan in the star-studded account of D-Day, The Longest Day (1962).
There’s no doubting that even without Bond, Connery would have been a star. His small role in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) is a good example of how his attitude and talent impressed those he worked with. Connery appears as O’Bannion, one of the four surly British villains whose greed for diamonds threatens the whole jungle. Anthony Quayle had been the star, but turned down another film in the series for a part in Lawrence of Arabia. Connery was the producers’ first choice for the new Tarzan. They were too late: he had been optioned for 007. ‘But I’ll do your film next,’ he assured them.
Having suddenly become a Hollywood icon, much of what other work Connery could get in the 1960s shows a surprising versatility and willingness to take risks. His character in Marnie (1964) is not so different from 007 – a ruthless, determined playboy. But Connery’s heavy-handed tactics, forcing Marnie to confront psychosexual horrors in her past, make for unsettling viewing, and the film was not the hoped-for success. Director Alfred Hitchcock later said he regretted casting him and should have chosen someone older, though co-star Tippi Hedren disliked acting frigid opposite Connery. ‘Have you seen him?’ she’s said to have complained.
In Women of Straw (1964) Connery plays a rare villain. In madcap comedy A Fine Madness (1966), he played the womanising poet Samson Shillitoe, peculiar at the best of times and now suffering writer’s block. In the title role of Shalako (1968), he’s a misanthropic loner leading rich and naive Europeans (including Brigit Bardot and Goldfinger’s Honor Blackman) safely past some Indians.
But possibly the best performance of his whole career is as Trooper Joe Roberts in Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965), where he’s the victim of a sadistic army camp regime. It’s utterly compelling, and Connery – more one of an excellent ensemble of players than the film’s star – is superb. It’s nothing like Bond - by no means suave or glamorous, just gritty and mean and horrifying. It’s not even in colour.
Darby O’Gill may have made him, but as his other work shows, Connery isn’t at his best playing heroes. His real ability lies in making compelling what are at best rough diamonds. He makes thugs and playboys dangerous yet charming, charismatic yet deadly. 007 is just one example of that. As he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1996, ‘the person who plays Bond has to be dangerous. If there isn't a sense of threat, you can't be cool.’
Part Two - The 1970s
In 1971, Diamonds Are Forever made Sean Connery the highest paid movie star ever. There could be no doubting his commanding star quality or the power he held in the movie industry. But, conscious of the shadow James Bond cast over him, part of his vast fee for returning to the role included finance for his own pet-project – a film as unlike Bond as it could be. It’s almost as if Connery has sat down with director Sidney Lumet and asked ‘how far can we go?’
In The Offence (1973), Connery plays Johnson, a policeman struggling to keep it together after all the nastiness he’s seen in his job. When Johnson beats up a suspected paedophile, the film offers no easy answers – whether or not the suspect was guilty is left unresolved. It’s a startlingly bleak and disturbing film, even when watched today, and certainly no mass-market crowd-pleaser.
It has been argued that The Offence is indicative of Connery’s willingness throughout the 1970s to try ‘different’ and ‘interesting’ films, to get away from Bond. He certainly undertook several ‘worthy’ roles around the same time. But he was paid the vast sum of a million dollars for The Molly Maguires (1970), so much money that he didn’t quibble when Richard Harris got top billing. Though making no concession to an Irish accent, he’s good as the leader of a gang of immigrant miners, rebelling against the cruel working conditions of nineteenth century Pennsylvania. The bleak grittiness of the story, though, did not encourage a wide appeal and the film was not a financial success. The size of Connery’s fee probably didn’t help.
He also got second billing in The Red Tent (1971). He didn’t command the same kind of fee for this, but then he only appears fairly briefly. As Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, Connery again makes no concession to the accent, and his appearance is really only notable for his silly white wig. It’s again an okay film, but not any kind of mass success.
As a rule, where Connery does try ‘different’ and ‘interesting’ roles, they just don’t work. His 70s sci-fi is a case in point. Zardoz (1974) has him running around the Irish countryside in a jockstrap, battling evil witches who declare ‘the gun is good, the penis bad.’ The budget for this effects-heavy science fiction nonsense was famously less than Connery’s fee for Diamonds Are Forever. With that and the actual story, one wonders how director John Boorman convinced him to take the part. Screen legend Charlton Heston, though, was also making similarly portentous sci-fi rubbish around this time, the kind of grand pretentiousness that Star Wars, being fun, killed off. Its limited cult appeal now must derive from it being so bafflingly bad. Connery’s other sci-fi in the 1970s was the equally dismal disaster movie Meteor (1979) – noteworthy only for being Natalie Wood’s final film.
He’s also limited in playing ‘different’ and ‘interesting’ characters when they’re not Scottish nationals. In Ransom (1974), Connery plays the Norwegian Chief of Police (with a Scottish accent). Refusing to surrender to terrorist Ian McShane’s multiple activities, he spends most of the film having shouty arguments over the radio, not making for the most exciting of films. In The Next Man (1976), Connery’s an Arab diplomat (with guess what sort of accent) trying to bridge differences between the Arab nations and Israel. Ostensibly topical and earnest, it soon descends into derivative thriller and isn’t anywhere as good as it ought to be.
His best non-Scot is easily Sheik Raisuli, the eponymous Lion in The Wind and the Lion (1974). Set at the turn of the century, the Sheik kidnaps an American woman in protest at Roosevelt’s aggressive foreign policy. Despite the accent, Connery gives a thrilling performance, lending a dignity to the character which overcomes the sentimentality of the plot and creates real drama. It would be easy to have made the character a two-dimensional cur, but Connery plays him as a roguish hero. As a result, we root for the bad guy.
That’s where he’s excellent, of course – playing charismatic rough diamonds. Because of his age, in the 1970s his characters are usually getting on a bit and out for one last thrill. It’s there to some extent in Diamonds Are Forever. It’s also true of The Anderson Tapes (1971). Working with Sidney Lumet again, this is another highlight of Connery’s career – a genuinely gripping star part for him. We’re with Anderson all the way as he battles the odds and the CCTV to get one over the police and rob a load of rich penthouses.
He’s also great opposite Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), as a pair of unscrupulous old soldiers planning one last great swindle. There are some lines you can’t imagine any other actor getting away with. It takes real talent to get through a mouthful like ‘I'm heartfully ashamed, for getting you killed instead of going home rich as you deserve, on account of me being so bleeding high and bloody mighty,’ and make it funny and real and moving all at the same time. Again we’re rooting for the rogues all the way, and the collapse of their little kingdom is genuinely tragic.
Something similar is going on in Robin and Marian (1976), where Connery plays an aging, disillusioned Robin Hood. An amazing cast might overplay some of the gags, but Robin’s realisation that King Richard is a bloody despot like any other, and the finale where Marian betrays him are quite astonishing. There’s real chemistry between Connery and co-star Audrey Hepburn, and the ending makes [the editor of the magazine] cry.
There’s a third great double-act in The First Great Train Robbery (1978), where Connery and Donald Sutherland are robbers chasing though marvellously rich Victoriana. Some of the set-pieces – a fireworks display at the old Crystal Palace, a chase across the train rooftops – really are very impressive. The film may not be as sublime as the previous two films mentioned, and verges too often on the sentimental, but it nevertheless remains highly entertaining and worth looking out for.
It’s interesting that apart from Diamonds Are Forever, Connery’s successes are all collaborations. He’s great as one half of a double act, and his only great solo ‘star’ parts are when he’s working with Sidney Lumet. As a rule, Connery is fantastic in ensemble films – in both Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977) he puts in confident, perfectly-judged performances that complement the multitude of famous co-stars. For all that he’s the archetypal Bond, the loner secret agent no one can get close to, Sean Connery is at his best when playing off other stars.
His last film of the period Cuba (1979) brought his 1970s to a disappointing close. Richard Lester’s film has Connery playing a British Major who meets an old flame, their rekindled love caught up in the political context of Castro taking power. The film itself was as doomed as its subjects. There were various mishaps during production and then it proved to be a financial disaster, seeing little release. The sort of classic, character acting that might have got an Oscar for another leading man (think of Michael Caine in The Quiet American), it’d take the eighties for Connery to be acknowledged as a masterly supporting actor.